The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

24 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There have been many stories in categories of science-fiction, action, drama, or all of the above that a similar element—the future sucks. There’s usually a dystopian society that runs under more strict, controlling, even violent procedures, and there’s usually a main character, or main characters, that have figured out the answer and use it to bring down this society that has turned the future into a hellhole. We’ve seen it all before. And it’s also used in quite a few young-adult novels, so it’s becoming more and more popular with each generation.

But “The Hunger Games,” Susanne Collins’ book series, finds many twists and turns with the sort of “dystopian future” tale that can either compel or bore audiences. In this case, Collins found a way to appeal to beyond the books’ supposed target demographic by giving her stories original ways to bend around the familiarities and give us some effective political and social commentary as well.

And it helps that with each book in this series of three stories, the themes deepen, the commentary is more active, the emotional conflict is more compelling, and you have something special with this series. That’s essentially a way to describe the film adaptation of the second book, “Catching Fire.”

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” picks up about a year after the original “Hunger Games” left off, as Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) prepare to go on a victory tour after winning the Hunger Games, which if you recall required them to be the last two of 24 young people to survive. But just because they won doesn’t mean there aren’t any ramifications for their futures. For one thing, they haven’t left the arena without any deep emotional scars that can come from killing in order to survive (and win). Katniss in particular has trouble coping and even functioning half the time. And also, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is angry and wants Katniss dead. Why? Because Katniss’ actions in the Hunger Games, including her idea of both her and Peeta winning, has made her into a symbol of hope and rebellion. Some of the 12 districts have begun to rise against the system, bringing it to a halt. In order to maintain his power and put an end to revolt, Snow believes Katniss should die.

As Katniss and Peeta embark on their tour and witness the rebellion of these districts, Snow is even more angry and decides to bring their district to the ground slowly but surely. Armed forces come in (dressed as…Stormtroopers?) and attack the villagers, including Katniss’ best male friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Worse yet, in order to ensure her doom, Snow arranges for a new game in which Hunger Game victors are forced to face each other. Katniss and Peeta end up in an arena yet again to fight for their lives, and for their freedom. This time, Katniss and Peeta have allies, such as athletic Finnick (Sam Claflin), angry rebel Johanna (Jena Malone), and intelligent Beetee (Jeffrey Wright).

The final hour of this two-hour-25-minute film occurs in the dome in which the game takes place. But these games are rather different from the original story in two ways. One is, there’s a lot more at stake than Katniss’ own life. She has to question the loyalty of her allies, before they may or may not become each other’s enemies later; she has to question what awaits her and her loved ones if she does survive; she has to wonder if she will put her life down to save those closest to her, such as Peeta. What will come out of this if either Katniss or Peeta live? Will it further raise the rebellion? If so, what will come from it?

And unfortunately, for those who haven’t read the books, those answers won’t be revealed until the last two films in the film series, each based on the third book “Mockingjay.” The film ends with a cliffhanger that may anger some, but keep most anxious to see what’s going to happen on November 21, 2014.

The other reason these games are different, at least on an entertainment level rather than an emotional level, is the series of adventures that these characters come across. More obstacles chase after them, each more dangerous than the last. These sequences are very exciting and tense (even the scenes with the gigantic baboons are thrilling to watch)—even more so than the tricks in the original film. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a rousing action film in that sense.

It’s also an intriguing film to look at. The visual style of the film, from the poor districts to the Presidential palace, is consistently brilliant and fun to watch, with all sorts of colors and visual effects that really stand out.

And it works with its drama as well. The stress disorder that Katniss feels is legitimately effective, and it not only causes her to think about what she had to do to survive the Hunger Games, but also causes the audience to consider what they were watching as entertainment! You understand Katniss’ plight and you wish for the comeuppance of those who want to strike her down because she already has too much to deal with, including keeping her family and friends safe. Even the smaller elements work well, including (surprisingly) a love-triangle involving Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, who is also in love with Katniss and watches with disdain and Katniss and Peeta continue a charade of romance in order to keep their fans happy. (Hopefully, it stays that way in the next film.)

Once again, this “Hunger Games” film is graced with a top-notch cast. Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as Katniss; even more so than in the original film because of the emotional complexity she has to bring to her character. Josh Hutcherson is again likable as Peeta; Woody Harrelson is great, reprising his earlier role as the drunk but helpful Haymitch; Liam Hemsworth’s Gale has more screen time than before and has room for more development; and Donald Sutherland plays President Snow like a despicable villain we desperately want to see comeuppance brought onto. Of the new additions to the cast in this story, I’d say Jena Malone is the strongest (let’s face it—you would like to say what she says about her situation when she’s interviewed for TV), but let’s not rule out Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who is terrific in the role of the new gamemaker.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a terrific film and I hope that this film-franchise continues strong so that the next two films can further deepen the elements that made it not only entertaining but also thought-provoking. As far as young-adult-novel film adaptations go, “The Hunger Games” is by far the strongest in a long time. I eagerly await the next entry.

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